by Bailey Shoemaker Richards

Back in 2011 and early 2012, SPARK and LEGO had a meeting about LEGO’s problems with gender representation. A little over a year later, I thought it was time to revisit the issue, see how LEGO is doing, and whether they were living up to our expectations. It’s especially timely as LEGO is the subject of another campaign, this time from Brave Girls Alliance, asking LEGO to create the entire set of female minifigs featured on Cuusoo. The line, which includes scientists, construction workers, a judge, and several other female minifigs, received the 10,000 votes needed for review by LEGO, but there’s a real possibility that if LEGO does choose to move forward with any of the proposed products, they’ll create only one of them. The Brave Girls Alliance, of which SPARK is a part, is asking them to create the whole set.

For those of you not familiar with SPARK’s work on LEGO, allow me to give a quick recap: in late 2011, LEGO released a new line of toys aimed at girls, called the LEGO Friends. SPARK looked at the new pink-and-purple bakery, hair salon, and house to decorate, the ads that show girls using the Friends toys as a dollhouse (as opposed to other LEGO ads, which focus on the act of building the product), and the new, Barbie-fied LEGO Friends figures, and we didn’t like what we saw. So we wrote about it, talked to LEGO about it, and started our own campaign that got over 60,000 signatures. Eventually, we had a meeting with several LEGO representatives.

We talked to national and international radio and newspaper reporters, dealt with angry backlash from people who thought we wanted LEGO to stop making the Friends line (which, for the record, we never asked for or wanted), and dug deep into research on LEGO’s history of flopped products for girls.

In the meeting, the LEGO reps told us they heard our concerns, and would address them. They said we could expect to see significantly better gender representation on their website and in their product lines, and that they fully intended to expand the Friends line to help girls explore all LEGO offerings.

LEGO Friends

I am happy to give LEGO credit where it’s due. The LEGO Friends line has sold, and continues to sell, like hotcakes. Purple, gender-stereotyped hotcakes, for the most part, but if girls are getting the spatial and developmental benefits of LEGO through the Friends line, I am happy about that. By some accounts, LEGO has had a 25% boost in sales, largely due to the Friends.

Additionally, some of the new LEGO Friends sets are pretty cool – there’s an airplane, a magician (my little brother is a magician, and the magic world has a dearth of women in it, so that set was especially cool from my perspective), a karate class and an adventure camper. All of those things are awesome activities for girls to engage in, and LEGO gets points for offering those sets.

My question, however, is this: Are the increased sales of Friends translating into more girls buying other LEGO sets? Is the Friends line helping girls explore the broader range of LEGO products? Are girls getting into Ninjago and Chima and the other new LEGO lines? I don’t know. I’d love to see some numbers on it.

LEGO Designers

Another thing that LEGO has started doing is posting videos of its designers talking about the products on their site – this is so cool, at first glance. I mentioned this during the meeting with LEGO as something that would be an awesome tool for engaging with kids and adults, and I love visiting the site and seeing some of the faces of the people who built the products.

What I didn’t love was the fact that the designers who worked on, for example, the Lord of the Rings sets talk extensively about the figures and products they worked on, while the designer who worked in the LEGO Friends set wordlessly plays with the already completed set. This is a core problem in the way LEGO is viewing its intended audience.

Every Lord of the Rings designer shown is a man, and each of them gets to voice their opinion on the product they built. The woman who worked on LEGO Friends is silent and invisible for all but about 4 seconds of her video.

LEGO advertisements fall into the same trap, with active boys shown building their sets, and girls passively playing with LEGO Friends sets that have already been built. The value structure around what type of play is encouraged by LEGO is obvious, and unfortunate.

The LEGO Website

During the initial research I did on LEGO, I decided to audit their website and see what the gender representation looked like online. It was dismal. In 2011, only 14% of obviously gendered LEGO figures on the website were women and girls. I mentioned this during our meeting with LEGO as something that should be easy to address, and should be fixed. The response was that they were working on a website overhaul, and we could expect to see significant improvement by the end of 2012.

I was excited to hear this. Showing more girls helps reduce stereotypes about girls – as a rule, when 25% of a group is made up of women, stereotyping starts to noticeably drop off. While I was asked not to share their target number for the website, it was going to be high enough to help combat stereotypes and ensure that girls felt represented.

So I did another audit of the LEGO website – in March 2013, I went through each and every page, each and every product, and counted all the identifiably male and female LEGO figurines.

16% of them were women.

I thought I’d give LEGO the benefit of the doubt and remove licensed products from my count. LEGO doesn’t get to pick which characters they put in from Lord of the Rings, Marvel and DC properties, and others, so maybe, I thought, just maybe the number would jump once those predominantly male product lines weren’t counted.

It did, but only 21% – not enough to help reduce stereotypes, and still well below what LEGO told us we could expect. Take the LEGO Friends and the licensed characters out of the equation, and we’re left with 11.1% female characters across the LEGO universe. By all these measures, the needle has barely moved on the website, and it’s nowhere close to what LEGO said they’d have by the end of 2012. To say I find this disappointing would be an understatement.

The New LEGO Ad

So now let’s talk about the ad that LEGO released earlier this year. I saw a few reactions, ranging from, “Oh, they got it! This is great!” to “They saw what you said, and they’re mocking you.” On one level, I like the ad. It is a moment of feeling like they want to reach out to girls in new ways, like they’re moving in the right direction, finally. But I can’t really make myself believe that, based on their website and failure to meet their own goal, and the way they continue to gender all of their other advertising.

This ad seems like a pat on the head – “We heard, you, see? We know girls can build things other than the LEGO Friends!” But this ad is not enough. There still aren’t ads that feature boys and girls playing together. The video and TV ads still show girls (and adult women) playing with pre-built sets passively, silently. The video and TV ads still show boys building and mastering their LEGO universes, actively, proudly and noisily.

The LEGO site is still heavily separated by gender. The LEGO Friends line still does not present an avenue into other LEGO lines, because barely 10% of those other lines have any girls in them – a new LEGO line, Chima, has 23 male characters and 1 female character. One. [Ed. note: as of June 2013, there are 2 female characters in the Chima line.]

The new ad is good, but it’s an empty gesture when LEGO’s product lines and website continue to actively exclude girls. LEGO can start putting words into action, and the set of scientist minifigures is just one place to start – a small step toward correcting the huge gender imbalance that continues to skew LEGO’s site. Showcasing a group of intelligent, active women without stereotyping them will go a long way toward ensuring that all children are represented within the LEGO universe. To let LEGO know you want to see gender diversity (and that awesome T-Rex skeleton), sign the Brave Girls Alliance petition on